WASHINGTON: Pending automatic spending cuts have put the U.S. armed forces on a path to being so unprepared for combat that it would be “immoral” to use them, the Defense Department’s top leaders told lawmakers Tuesday.
The warning was the most dire to date of how looming budget reductions could undercut military readiness.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in response to a question during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that neither he nor any of the four-star officers in charge of the military services had considered resigning to protest the billions of dollars in cuts that would begin on March 1 unless Congress acted to stop them.
“But I will tell you personally, if ever the force is so degraded and so unready, and then we’re asked to use it, it would be immoral to use the force unless it’s well-trained, well-led and well-equipped,” Dempsey said.
When Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, asked: “Are we on the path to creating that dilemma?” Dempsey replied: “We are on that path.”
The uniformed leaders of the armed forces agreed with the assessment.
The potential for the automatic cuts, called a sequester, to kick in on March 1 is the result of Congress’ failure to trim the deficit by $1.2 trillion over a decade. The Pentagon faces a $46 billion budget reduction in the seven months starting in March and ending in September, and additional cuts would come in future years as long as the sequester remains in effect. The automatic cuts would be in addition to a $487 billion reduction in defense spending over the next 10 years mandated by the Budget Control Act passed in 2011.
Further complicating the military’s fiscal picture is the lack of a budget for the current fiscal year. Congress hasn’t approved one. Lawmakers have instead been passing bills called continuing resolutions, which keep spending levels at the same rate as the year before. That means the Pentagon is operating on less money than planned, and that compounds the problem, defense officials said. A freeze on hiring is already in place and the military has cut back on maintenance at bases and facilities, they said. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week that the U.S. is at risk of becoming a second-rate military power if the sequester isn’t prevented.
Dempsey said “military readiness is in jeopardy due to the convergence of unprecedented budget factors.” If the situation isn’t fixed, he said, the armed forces “will have much less of everything and therefore be able to provide fewer options to our nation’s leaders.”
Sen. John McCain, a Republican, described the military’s financial situation as “kind of an Orwellian experience” as it’s occurring when North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon, Iran remains a threat in the Gulf region, and Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Mali and Tunisia all are in a state of unrest.
“We are probably in a more unsettled period since the end of the Cold War than certainly I have ever seen,” McCain said. No one at the witness table disputed McCain’s assessment.
The Defense Department announced last week it was cutting its aircraft carrier presence in the Gulf region from two carriers to one, a move that represents one of the most significant effects of the sequester. The U.S. has maintained two aircraft carrier groups in the Gulf for much of the last two years.
The deployments of the USS Harry S Truman and the USS Gettysburg, a guided-missile cruiser, are being delayed as part of the navy’s plan to deal with the budget uncertainty.